Death and mourning as sources of community participation in online social networks: R.I.P. pages in Facebook
First Monday

Death and mourning as sources of community participation in online social networks: R.I.P. pages in Facebook by Abbe E. Forman, Rebecca Kern, and Gisela Gil-Egu



Abstract
Facebook is a place for people to connect and share; a place to form online communities and engage in discussion. Kern, et al. (2013) found that Facebook is also a place to commune with, and about, the dead in a public forum. Although most often mourning of a death is done privately within tight knit communities, online social networking sites and particularly Facebook R.I.P. pages are creating public participation in the memorialization of those who have passed. The present study examines Facebook R.I.P. pages as a catalyst for participation and creation of online communities. Gallant, et al. (2007) provided the framework for determining the depth of online community created by those who participate in the creation, maintenance, and involvement with Facebook R.I.P. pages. This study examines the Facebook R.I.P. pages using a content analysis to determine if indeed these pages represent online community as defined by Gallant, et al. The model created by Gallant, et al. includes the following heuristics used to define online community: interactive creativity, selective hierarchy, identity construction, rewards and costs, and artistic forms.

Contents

Introduction
Background information
Methodology
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Memorial pages established by loved ones/friends and pages of Facebook members who have passed are the two distinct page types that exist for people who have died (Kern, et al., 2013). Facebook ‘friends’ to/of these pages can, and do, continue to post comments to the deceased and participate in dialogues with each other. This can be seen as a means of support for those in mourning, similar to the ritualistic behaviors performed at wakes, burials, and cemetery visits. In addition, through their posts, the ‘friends’ collectively remember the deceased, engaging in public discussions and rituals that are virtual, and potentially eternal. The dead never really die, but rather are perpetually sustained in a digital state of dialogic limbo hence the moniker R.I.P., Remain in Perpetuity (especially on Facebook) that graced the first phase of this ongoing study.

Although most often mourning of a death is done privately within tight knit communities, online social networking sites, and particularly Facebook R.I.P. pages, are creating public participation in the memorialization of those who have passed. The present phase of this study examines Facebook R.I.P. pages as a catalyst for participation and creation of online communities.

“Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 2000). Gallant, et al. (2007) added that online community is built through human interaction, not through proximity, which is often the case with ‘traditional’ community building. In the age of the Internet, community is no longer necessarily spatial, but instead is now much more socially derived (Wellman, 2005). Online communities fostered by social networking sites such as Facebook may fill the void created by the lack of face–to–face socializing that is becoming the norm with the proliferation of the Internet (Norris, 2004). Hersberger, et al. (2007) noted that the foundation for strong online communities is rooted in factors that include fulfillment of needs, shared emotional connection and membership ... all factors that can occur via computer–mediated communication as well as in face–to–face conversations.

Gallant, et al. (2007) provided a framework for determining the depth of online community created by those who participate in the creation, maintenance, and involvement with Facebook R.I.P. pages. This study examines Facebook R.I.P. pages using a content analysis methodology to determine if indeed these pages represent an online community as defined by Gallant, et al.. The five heuristics are as follows: interactive creativity, selective hierarchy, identity construction, rewards and costs, and artistic forms.

Gallant, et al. (2007) studied Facebook and MySpace users during the time when those Web sites were competing for market share, a battle that Facebook eventually won. The number of Facebook users has grown exponentially over that time, from 30 million in July 2007 (Cashmore, 2007) to over 800 million in March 2012. With that growth came changes to the demographic makeup of Facebook users as well as new uses for Facebook communities. Kern, et al. (2013) explored the use of Facebook R.I.P. pages as a new type of public mourning ritual. This study extends both Kern, et al. as well as Gallant, et al. to test the generalizability of both as a new type of community specifically constructed as an open discussion for, about, and to the dead.

 

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Background information

Changing notions of community

Social communities are constantly shifting, merging, and redefining themselves. The shift from physical communities, mired in power dynamics and cultural marginalizations, to digital communities, where identities are masked, are significant moments in cultural practice. In 1990, Talcott Parsons suggested that,

The new societal community, conceived as an integrative institution, must operate at a level different from those familiar in our intellectual traditions; it must go beyond command of political power and wealth and of the factors that generate them to value commitments and mechanisms of influence. [1]

Parsons argues that social communities function in the best interest of society as they provide unification and membership. They do not function, however, without the need for members to receive positive feedback, what Parsons calls “prestige”, considered a measurement of cultural involvement and “influence” [2]. Anyone can act as community leader, those with a sort of influence, particularly online, and leaders and followers engage in dialogic practice. Stone (1981) found that identity was comprised of two parts: the claim of an identity made by an individual (identity announcement) which is then followed by the acknowledgement of the identity by others (identity placement). This underscores the need for the endorsement of “others” in the foundation of a claimed identity, the need for recognition of involvement and self–identity. Each individual (identity) is crucial to the formation of the online community. This fosters an environment where each (the individual and the community) is necessary in order to maintain the other.

Death builds community, as mourning and the associated cultural rituals provide order, acceptance, and a space for mutual support to those who are grieving (Mims, 1999). Mourning serves many potential functions, some which affect the mourner and some of which are believed to affect the deceased. Expressions of grief aid the process of mourning, as they show, to the deceased and to others, the importance of the life that is gone. Becker and Knudson (2003) suggested that mourning is a responsibility, a “heroic act” [3], a need to carry on memories of the life of the person, particularly if that life affected the mourner in a positive and meaningful way.

Once a private activity, mourning has increased in public places, such as through celebrity memorials (Walter, 1997), personal memorials (Jorgenson–Earp and Lanzilotti, 1998), and online social networking sites (Roberts, 2004). Socially derived rather than spatial (Wellman, 2005), online communities expand Parson’s (1990) vision of the new social community. Additionally, the relative anonymity of being online removes the outward cues that facilitate patriarchal constraints, social status, and other forms of power. Online communities help to create social capital that runs along a continuum between bridging and bonding. Bridging brings together disparate community members while bonding tightens an already existing network of people that may have more in common. Norris (2004) found that online communities created as a support group fall almost equidistant between bridging and bonding, thus creating a community of people that may already know each other, but is open to others as well.

In addition, online environments, especially social networking and other community sites, increase public engagement of cultural practice (boyd and Ellison, 2007; Roberts, 2004). Through the creation of memorial pages, online communities and social networking sites contribute to the eternal memory of the deceased, and are a public space to demonstrate grief and loss. These spaces offer a place to mourn collectively, where there is a potential for dialogue and constant evolution of memory (Halbwachs, 1992; Zelizer, 1995). These moments of gathering, the forming of a community however disparate, create a collectivity of memorializing. This in turn allows for a fulfillment of needs, sharing of connections, and membership identification (Hersberger, et al., 2007), demonstrating both an enhancement of traditional community relationship building as well as a redefinition of off–line and online practice and connections. Online, there is a three–step flow as described by Jensen (2009), with one to one, one to many, and many to many dialogic opportunities. Facebook memorial pages create an additional type of community discourse, many mourners to one — the deceased.

Five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web–based communities

The five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web–based communities were developed by Gallant, et al. (2007) and include the following: interactive creativity, selective hierarchy, identity construction, rewards and costs, and artistic forms. The first heuristic, interactive creativity, encompasses communication by community members. Gallant, et al. stated that this heuristic encourages an open flow of dynamic interaction that occurs because of both technology and content, and allows for creativity, such as aspects of design and use of pictures to aid in the communication process. Online community builds through human interaction not through proximity, which is often the case with ‘traditional’ community building (Gallant, et al., 2007). Many people involved in online communities regardless of geographical location, consider the online space to be shared space (Baym, 2010). Online communities fostered by SNSs at some future point may fill the void created by the lack of face–to–face socializing that is becoming the norm with the proliferation of the Internet (Norris, 2004).

The second heuristic discussed by Gallant, et al. (2007) was selective hierarchy. This heuristic works as a social system in that it creates structures that help to unite, divide, and assemble people into networks and groups. Memberships and access help to define the hierarchy that creates an insider/outsider structure that is typical of community membership (Gallant, et al., 2007). Potentially included in this heuristic is some type of selection process that offers community members a way to sort, store, filter and/or ignore information or content that is important to them. Gallant, et al. added that selective hierarchy could be used to group members into clusters that can create in–groups and out–groups, or sub–groups. Fostering the insider/outsider dichotomy is the sub–group use of insider lingo, words, and styles (Baym, 2010). Baym added that group insiders’ communication style is guided by group values. Insiders influence the discourse of the larger community, and shape collective memory.

Identity construction, which recognizes common interests, backgrounds, and demographics with other group members, constitutes the third heuristic (Gallant, et al., 2007). Member behavior is often guided by norms and standards developed by others within the community (Baym, 2010). Gallant, et al. stated that common ground was crucial for the active engagement of community members, once again echoing the new social community as described by Parsons (1990). Rewards and costs is the fourth heuristic and does not refer to monetary rewards or costs. Instead, rewards are represented by the ability to stay in touch with community members, as well as keeping in touch and communication. Costs, although mentioned, appeared to be nearly irrelevant and referred almost exclusively to the time spent interacting with the community. The final heuristic is artistic form which Gallant, et al. (2007) referred to as the possible opportunity to personalize a Web site’s interface. This heuristic allows for individual style with the context of community. Personalization can occur through the use of art, photos, music, and other multimedia content. Digital communication is a mixed modality that consists of a repertoire of communication skills and modes (Baym, 2010). Greenhow and Robelia (2009) found that social network participants, especially those of high school age (16–19), preferred the use of ‘creative performance’ as a means of communication. This age group incorporated the use of drawings and videos, which Greenhow and Robelia called communicative performances and worked as a form of social capital. In addition, online pictorial and video representations of the deceased capture life, rather than death, creating lasting memories of the body, and allow the living to remain removed from death.

The goal of this study is to determine the depth of online community, as it exists within the realm of Facebook Rest in Peace (R.I.P.) pages. A preliminary study on mourning rituals and online communities helped to explain online mourning practices on a popular site like Facebook (Kern, et al., 2013). The cultural impact of an online space whose original purpose of providing a platform to connect with friends but has expanded to include many other dimensions of people’s off–line lives, is significant. Specifically, the current study seeks to understand better the creation of community on Facebook R.I.P. pages, traditionally a more private construction built around differing cultural expressions of mourning.

 

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Methodology

A content analysis of Facebook pages containing the acronym “R.I.P.” (“Rest in Peace”) in their individual titles was conducted. The size of the sample was initially predetermined by Facebook, since this social networking site tops at 550 the maximum number of matching pages returned when entering any particular term in its search window. It is not completely clear under what criteria Facebook selects the pages shown in return to searches that match more than 550 pages. However, a combination of date of creation (recently created pages are more easily accessible than older ones) and popularity (pages with more traffic) appears to intervene in the selection process.

The pages returned by Facebook in response to a search term constitute a dynamic group that may partially vary from one day to another, as new and highly active pages containing said search term are created within this social networking site. However, intensive coding over a two–week period in mid–May 2011, as well as previous experience with data collection for a similar study conducted in 2010 (Kern, et al., 2013), revealed that variations in the returns for the search term “R.I.P.” is about two to four new pages per week. Therefore, minimizing the coding period also minimized variation in our sample. On the other hand, given the dynamic nature of the group of pages retrieved by Facebook for any search, replicating the sample of pages we explored for this study is almost impossible.

Out of the 550 pages that Facebook returns in response to the search term “R.I.P.”, a large portion were dedicated to celebrities (including fictional characters in popular TV shows or movies) or public figures, some of which inspired more than one memorial page dedicated to the same subject (e.g., there are more than 10 pages with variations of the title “R.I.P. Michael Jackson”). In such cases, the pages selected were the ones with the most “friends” or “likes” among repeated memorial spaces for a particular celebrity. Also considered were R.I.P. Facebook pages “mourning” inanimate subjects (e.g., establishments that have ceased operations) and collective subjects (e.g., soldiers fallen in military operations abroad).

Thus, after discarding repeated memorial pages for celebrities, as well as non-memorial Facebook pages that for some reason carry the acronym “R.I.P.” in their title (e.g., the surfing gear company “rip curl”), a total of 384 pages remained for the content analysis.

Operationalizing Web–based community

One of the purposes of this study was to determine whether empirical support could be found for the five heuristics for evaluating Web–based communities (Gallant, et al., 2007). As explained above in the literature review, those heuristics include indicators of interaction, internal organizing and control, cohesiveness, assimilation, and degree of individual agency within the order imposed by the community to which members belong. These heuristics were operationalized through coding items for the content analysis, so that occurrences of any of the five heuristics within the “R.I.P.” Facebook pages in the sample were coded as shown in Table 1.

 

Table 1: Coding items to measure the five heuristics for the evaluation of Web–based communities (Gallant, et al., 2007).
 Coding itemsDescription
Heuristic 1: “Interactive creativity” →
Communication by/among community members.
Do postings on this Facebook page show dialogue between/among friends/fans of dead subject of memorial site?
 
Do postings on this Facebook page show messages by friends/fans directed towards dead subject of memorial site?
Posters responding to each other’s comments or inquiries.
 
Posters directly addressing dead subject of the memorial (e.g., using the second person: “watch over us from heaven”).
Heuristic 2: “Selective hierarchy” →
Structures for the inclusion/exclusion of members of a community, as well as for the formation of clusters and cliques.
Does this memorial page in Facebook show any form of filtering or control on posting activity by its administrator?
 
Do postings on this Facebook page show exchange of support/solidarity messages?
Administrators setting Facebook pages to accept postings only from pre–selected “friends;” or evidence of specific actions taken to thwart unwanted postings or posters.
 
Messages demonstrating agreement/disagreement with a poster’s comment, that could potentially promote sub–groups within community.
Heuristic 3: “Identity construction” →
Building cohesiveness through recognition of commonalities among members of community.
Does this memorial page in Facebook include references about subject of page as a role model or as being influential to others?Posts explicitly stating impact of subject of memorial page on somebody else’s life (e.g., by commenting on how subject of page changed life of poster or by explaining how the former modeled behavior or ideas on the latter).
Heuristic 4: “Rewards and costs” →
Elements that facilitate or difficult staying in contact with other members of community.
Does this memorial page show postings containing useful information that could potentially lead to collective action or further exchange of information among members?
 
Does this memorial space show spamming, or posts with nasty comments against subject of page?
Messages eliciting responses from other members of the community, or calling them to participate in a specific activity (e.g., participation in a candlelight vigil).
 
Posts diverting focus of memorial page to an irrelevant subject (e.g., directing users to a commercial site unrelated to subject of page), or offensive content that is clearly intended to create a disruption in the communication taking place within the site.
Heuristic 5: “Artistic forms” →
Evidence of creative elements that perform an essentially expressive function.
Does this memorial page show artistic posts or materials involving some creative activity by users?Posts of poems, treated photos, songs, videos, drawings, etc., honoring the subject of the memorial page.

 

As this table suggests, items in the coding sheet are not always mutually exclusive, in the same way that the heuristics defined by Gallant, et al. (2007) contain some level of openness in their definition. Coding was performed solely by one of the authors of this study, in order to minimize potential problems in connection with inter–coder reliability.

The content analysis yielded some partial empirical support to the heuristics proposed by Gallant, et al. (2007), but also revealed some of the challenges of translating highly qualitative categories explaining human communication into quantifiable variables, as explained in the following section of this article.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

The goal of this study was to determine if Facebook R.I.P. pages represent online community as defined by Gallant, et al. Through the use of content analysis, the five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web–based communities were used as a framework to determine if Facebook R.I.P. pages constituted community. The design of Web–based communities was beyond the scope of this study, so the heuristics were used for evaluation only.

Two sets of data were recorded, general information and heuristic related data. Regarding general information, of the 550 pages that were coded, 85.13 percent were dedicated to individual subjects with 14.87 percent representing a collective, or more than one subject. Interestingly, only 83.95 percent of the pages were created to honor “real” people as opposed to the 16.05 percent created for fictional characters, places, or things. Also of note, 27.69 percent of the pages analyzed were dedicated to celebrities who had passed away.

Heuristic number one, interactive creativity, was defined by Gallant, et al. (2007) as an open flow of dynamic interaction that occurs because of both technology and content. Consistent with Kern, et al. (2013) that individual posts are largely direct dialogues to the deceased, this study found nearly 68 percent of R.I.P. pages contain dialogue with the deceased person memorialized on the page. For those who post direct comments to the deceased, the interaction is real and perhaps calls for a new terminology to describe this type of communication. Below is an example of a conversation between a poster and the deceased from a Facebook R.I.P. page.

“Read about you in the newpapaer man, r.i.p, those kids did are wrong, you had a great life ahead of you, I’ve never known you but this sort of crime needs to stop, full respect to you buddy, rest in peace ❤”

In addition to comments addressed directly to the deceased, 42.82 percent of pages analyzed showed interactive dialogue between posters. An example of this type of dialogue from the R.I.P. of a fallen police officer:

Poster # 1: “I had the honor of attending the wake and funeral ... against my husbands wishes our children attended as well ... though we did not know John personally we are part of a very large and caring law enforcement family ... my daughters were overwhelmed by the outpouring support ... I myself was taken back my the words his sister Victoria spoke in the church and the response the boys in blue had ... they cried and held each other ... John you will missed and your sacrafice was not in vain ... thank you for your dedication to the “community’s” you have touched ... Rest in Peace”

Poster # 2: “Beautifully said...”.

Poster # 3: “amen”

Clearly heuristic number one is evident in the Facebook R.I.P. pages studied in the form of one–way conversations with the deceased as well as with interactive conversations between posters.

Selective hierarchy, the second heuristic, creates a social system that helps to unite, divide, and assemble people into networks and groups (Gallant, et al., 2007). Community membership is shaped within the boundaries of this heuristic, structured by a hierarchy tied to membership status. This was evidenced to some degree by 26.15 percent of sampled pages showing some type of content control or management by page administrators. The following is an example of comment found on a page created as a non–comment tribute page. The statement lets potential posters know the acceptable boundaries set up by the page administrator. “This page was created to pay tribute but it blocks the ability to leave awful comments. Please show your respects by simply liking it — thank you.”

Although the percentage of these pages is relatively small, this heuristic contains another component as well. Included in this heuristic is the use of a selection process that offers community members a way to sort, store, filter and/or ignore information or content that is important to them. In addition to the percentage mentioned earlier, 30.76 percent of pages showed some type of information exchange amongst posters, such as this comment, “Stansfield in his career played for Cullompton Rangers, Elmore, Yeovil Town, Hereford United and of course Exeter City.” While the percentages are relatively low for this heuristic, it clearly has some role in shaping the community formed on many Facebook R.I.P. pages by providing information and creating places for groups of “mourners” to congregate online.

The third heuristic, identity construction, recognizes the common interests and backgrounds of group members (Gallant, et al., 2007). Although likely not quantifiable, the fact that all posters on any particular Facebook R.I.P. have come together to publicly mourn a loss constitutes a common interest. The following post exemplifies this heuristic; it is from the R.I.P. page of a famous soccer player/coach.

“R.I.P. Sir Bobby Robson! someone born to be the great. I know you are the legend of both Tyne and World. You used to say “no team won anything without a good keeper” So no little boy can be a gentleman without idol. You are the real idol of million boys in the world as a gentleman, a keen teacher and very kind senior. I’ll miss you! For my first hero.” (sic)

Nearly 58 percent of pages include some reference to the deceased as either a role model or influence to others. This also serves as a type of common ground/interest for posters, reinforcing the creation and maintenance of community.

Rewards and costs comprise the fourth heuristic. Regarding Facebook R.I.P. pages, the rewards are the ability to stay in touch with community members. This is a rather cyclical system; become part of the community by posting on a page, which helps to create and maintain community. The rewards are in finding, creating, and maintaining membership in the community. Although Gallant, et al. (2007) referred to costs as only the time spent on any given Web site, this study found costs to be much more significant. Facebook R.I.P. pages take what has traditionally been the more private ritual of mourning, and brings it into the public sphere. While the creation of an online community is clearly a reward, some posters leave mean, crude, and nasty comments on the pages created to memorialize the deceased. On a page created to memorialize kids who had killed themselves or had been killed as a result of bullying, the following comment was left:

“Rumor has it that Marcus sells cocaine. I also heard that he was arrested. I get pissed when people ask me if I have any proof. Finally, I heard that his employer did a background check on they said it’s true. Lot’s of people say it, so it must be true. Anyway, his employer still hired him, didn’t fire him. They also checked his public records, but there was no arrest. I don’t really care. I don’t like him, so I really would like to believe that he’s a coke head.” —— another excerpt from the diary of a hater” (sic)

So, while rewards may be numerous, there are costs created by the openness of this type of forum. Unfortunately, this same community building opportunity also creates fertile ground for those with malicious intent.

The final heuristic, artistic forms, is the opportunity to personalize a Web site’s interface (Gallant, et al., 2007). Facebook R.I.P. pages provide a place for mourners to post pictures, poems, music, and/or videos dedicated to the deceased. One example is the R.I.P. page created for a statue dubbed Touchdown Jesus. The six story statue was located outside of a church in Monroe, Ohio and was given the moniker because the arms and hands of the statue where perpetually formed into the signal for a touchdown in football. The statue was destroyed by lightening and fire in 2010. On the Facebook R.I.P. page, several “mourners” have left drawings and enhanced photographs of Touchdown Jesus. On such photo has a football passing between the up–stretched arms of the statue.

 

Photo left on the wall of Facebook R.I.P. page
Figure 1: Photo left on the “wall” of Facebook R.I.P. page.

 

The goal of this study was to examine Facebook R.I.P. pages through the lens or framework of the five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web–based communities by Gallant, et al. (2007). This was successfully done through the use of content analysis, meticulous coding, and analyzing 550 Facebook pages using the keyword R.I.P. Through the evaluative process, this study found that Facebook R.I.P. pages do constitute community. Each of the five heuristics was found to be present in the pages examined (in varying percentages). Although the original five heuristics were designed with a more traditional and interactive form of communication as a way of creating community, the framework works in this less traditional form of communication adding to the generalizability of the original study by Gallant, et al. Online community is built through human interaction not through proximity which is often the case with ‘traditional’ community building (Gallant, et al.). In the case of Facebook R.I.P. pages, online community is built through human interaction but often the human may be deceased. This does not stop the other participant from adding to the conversation. This is an area that needs further research. It would be worth discovering from the view of the poster, what the rewards gained are via this open communication with the dead, which has traditionally been a much more private ritual. Another area for future research would be a better understanding of the support system created within this almost autonomous and very public “coming together” of people (often strangers) that build an online community of public mourners. In addition, both the Internet and Facebook are still young and small, but growing at remarkable speeds. It is important to continue to reassess the attributes of both the Internet and Facebook as each continues to grow. End of article

 

About the authors

Abbe E. Forman is an independent researcher and an adjunct Network Security Instructor at ECPI University.
E–mail: abbe [dot] forman [at] gmail [dot] com

Rebecca Kern is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Manhattan College.
E–mail: rebecca [dot] kern [at] manhattan [dot] edu

Gisela Gil–Egui is an Associate Professor of Communication at Fairfield University.
E–mail: ggil [at] fairfield [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all of the Internet researchers who continue to study this “phenomenon” that is shaping and reforming who we are as individuals and as a society. This is such an exciting field and there is so much yet to learn. Special thanks to Edward Valauskas, for doing a fine job as editor of First Monday and to the reviewers who helped to strengthen this paper.

 

Notes

1. Parsons, 1990, p. 305.

2. Parsons, 1990, p. 304.

3. Becker and Knudson, 2003, p. 713.

 

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Editorial history

Received 26 January 2012; revised 21 May 2012; accepted 7 July 2012.


Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Abbe E. Forman, Rebecca Kern, and Gisela Gil–Egu. All rights reserved.

Death and mourning as sources of community participation in online social networks: R.I.P. pages in Facebook
by Abbe E. Forman, Rebecca Kern, and Gisela Gil-Egu
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 9 - 3 September 2012
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3935/3288
doi:10.5210/fm.v0i0.3935





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